'Well-intentioned laws can end up hurting...'

Photos: TOM GRALISH / Staff photographer
Photos: TOM GRALISH / Staff photographer

Measure would punish parents

Posted: March 16, 2010

State Sen. Anthony Williams got an earful yesterday during the first of many hearings held to discuss a parent-responsibility bill he's pushing in Harrisburg.

The hearing for Senate Bill 99, which would punish parents for crimes their kids commit, was held at Boys Latin Charter School, 55th Street near Cedar Avenue.

The bill calls for a guardians to serve up to a year in jail if their children are consistently involved with the court system and the parents do nothing to stem the kids' behavior. Some critics said that penalty is too harsh.

Williams considered the feedback.

"No bill is perfect," he said after the meeting during which 10 top city and education officials, including Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and schools chief Arlene Ackerman, spoke.

"I'm clear about that. There is no bill that will satisfy everybody's concern of how we are going to get parent involvement."

But the legislation, if adopted, will target a small percentage of parents whose children are consistently truant or commit crimes in school.

In many cases, Ramsey said the root of the problem is simple: "There are some parents, when it's all said and done, should not be parents," he said.

"We have a problem that is serious in this city," he added before citing an example of violence over the weekend involving a 16-year-old boy who was fatally shot by another teen.

The issue of youth violence has become a hot topic in the wake of recent student attacks at South Philadelphia High School and reports of mobs of city high school students descending on Center City to harass people and generally cause trouble.

Across the United States, parents are starting to be held legally responsible for their children's actions, paying fines, serving jail time or being required to attend parenting classes.

Since 1995, more than 40 states have enacted what usually are called parental-responsibility laws.

At yesterday's meeting, Ackerman praised the bill as an "important start" in setting a standard for parental supervision. She cited the district's Parent University, which offers academic and vocational classes to guardians, as one way to encourage them to become more active.

"Education will address many of our society's problems," she said. "[Some parents] don't know how to do it [parent]. They don't have the role models, the education wherewithal. Maybe we have to force it on them," she said, adding that Family Court Judge Kevin Dougherty plans to begin referring families to the district's parent program.

District Attorney Seth Williams said he was willing to work with lawmakers but noted some concerns, including who would pay for diversionary programs such as parenting classes, the parents or the courts.

Williams also noted that officials should work to revive funding for prevention programs, including Don't Fall Down in the Hood, a rescue program for first-time juvenile offenders that saw a $150,000 budget cut this year.

Critics of the bill said they fear that the legislation's vague terms and the threat of fines and jail will harm exacerbate the poverty of poor families.

"Well-intentioned laws can end up hurting families," Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "Ironically, some have noted that it can result in less parental responsibility rather than more." Plus, she added, there are laws on the books that hold parents responsible if their children skip school.

Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center, added: "Imposing large fines on poor parents and threatening or putting them in jail does not eliminate or appear to reduce truancy."

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